from the collection
Paperwhite was a vogue girl, born to love. For three straight days.
Perhaps the gengineers thought that the human urge to crush a lovely flower might be put to good use on a flower that was born to be crushed. Perhaps they realized that girls who did what vogue girls did— were not meant for long life. They were like paper clothing, to be worn once, then discarded.
Such a fragile flower to end an alien plague. The gengineers squirted Paperwhite down her birthing tube into a plague-ridden world that had no use for girls like her any more.
Paperwhite woke to a man’s voice rough with bitterness, crying, “Lord, not another one!”
She sat up with a rustle of soft silk. She opened her eyes to see a grizzled man who looked like he might be her daddy wringing a damp red towel.
“Pink shoes this time!” he cried.
She looked down at her feet, neatly pressed together. Yes, her shoes were pink, and pretty. Delicate straps around her ankles and five-inch spikes. She knew that they would hurt if she walked far, but there was little need for that. She needed only to get to the party!
“Please,” she said to the grizzled man, who had begun to tug at the ragged hair that fell over his forehead, “Can you tell me the way to the party?”
“Oh, you idiot! There’s no party! Why can’t you just…go back? Back up the tube!”
“But why?” Paperwhite said as she gracefully turned, swinging her legs over the edge of the…tube. It was clear, but discolored yellow, and it smelled bad. Now she remembered—this was her birthing tube, and this man was clearly supposed to help her.
She felt her first smile. How nice! The man’s grizzled face changed. His jaw relaxed and his eyes crinkled at the corners. Smile, Paperwhite . . . smile, man! Beyond him, Paperwhite glimpsed an open door and saw the bar with all its hanging glasses and bottles of delicious liqueurs: chartreuse, coffee, almond, absinthe.
“I should like …the green one,” she said, moving past the man with her silk dress rustling around her thighs with delicious cool softness.
“Melon or chartreuse?” the man asked, then he slapped his forehead and cried out in anguish. “No! No! Just stay there.”
“But why?” she said, laughing. She brushed his rough cheek with her forefinger. What a pretty color her nails were! The same pale tone as her dress, as her shoes, like the inside of a lovely shell. Ah, to press a shell against your ear and hear the ocean’s roar.
Paperwhite, what did the ocean look like? Where did it lie?
“Come with me,” the man said, voice neither kind nor unkind. Paperwhite paused and ran her hand through her long hair. She held it up; long, smooth hair, a color like…she thought a moment . . . like a golden pony’s mane. Am I a pony? Paperwhite, running through a field of grass, cool around her hooves, the damp green smell of the early morning in her flaring nostrils.
“Let’s run!” she said to the man. He took his red towel in both hands and began to twist it again, his face suddenly flushed.
“No!” he cried. Then he grabbed her arm, right above the elbow, and began dragging her through the door to the bar. “Come here. Just sit. We’ll figure something out.”
He led her past the bar. She looked over her shoulder, longing for a snifter of chartreuse, and wondering why the music was not playing.
“I want to dance,” she said. Then she noticed things that did not seem right. White webs clustered in the corners of the soft red leather booths. The tables were covered in dirty powder, and the glasses at the bar were not clean, either. He was the bartender! Why had he not been cleaning?
And not a customer in the place. Where were the laps to sit in? Where were the men with smooth heads of hair to caress? The lips to kiss?
“Sit,” the bartender said. “There’ll be no dancing just yet. I’ll call the others.”
Paperwhite sat in a booth near the gold-filigree railing that separated the bar from the street. Quiet street; no one out and about. It was mid-afternoon and surely there should be some customers. Paperwhite raised her hand to wave, then put it down. It didn’t seem right to wave at nobody. She made a streak on the dusty table with her finger, then drew a circle and put two dots for eyes and a half-moon for a smile.
Amy Sterling Casil says of this story:
This is one of the most science-fictional stories I’ve written. It’s a different lens on some of the characters and broad situations I’ve worked on. While I wrote this story, some of the non-anthropic thinking I have began to emerge. Ideas like, “If you’re only alive for three days, are you alive at all?” Or, is Paperwhite, who lives only for three days like her namesake flower, more alive than anyone has ever been?
I’m working on a sequel, “The Ground Beneath Her Feet.”
“Incandescent” is a favorite of those who’ve listened to the audiobook version of Female Science Fiction Writer.